In 1997, rookie filmmaker Jessica Yu won an Oscar for her short subject documentary, “Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien.” Dodging movie stars onstage at the Academy Awards ceremony, Yu delivered one of the great Oscar night one-liners: “You know you’re entering new territory when your outfit costs more than your film.”
Yu has since gone on to a busy career directing both documentary and scripted projects in TV and film. The Full Frame Documentary Film Festival – kicking off Thursday in downtown Durham – will honor Yu with a tribute and retrospective of her work in the documentary field. Her new film, “The Guide,” will also make its world premiere at the festival.
“The Guide” profiles 19-year-old Tonga Torcida, a tour guide at Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park. A world-famous tourist destination in the 1960s, Gorongosa was nearly destroyed during a series of wars that devastated the country. In Yu’s film, Tonga meets biologist E.O. Wilson and embarks on a path to save and restore the park.
Yu recently spoke to the N&O about the new film, the global water crisis and the spirit of Full Frame.
Q: How did this project get its start?
I was working on an idea about the human side of this big conservation effort. With these kinds of projects, the attention tends to be on ecosystem and the flora and fauna. But there is a recognition that if people aren’t involved, if the community isn’t involved, then the project won’t succeed.
So we tried to figure out the way to tell that story, and over the course of filming we learned about this young man Tonga, who had volunteered for a number of years. You could see the wheels turning in his mind as he figured out that maybe his horizons could be broader than being a tour guide.
Q: In the film, we learn that Tonga had to walk three hours to and from school every day just to finish high school. Then he does all this work at the park. Did you know that he was the hero of your film, so to speak?
Yeah, you know it’s interesting, it was really a matter of getting to know him while making the film. We were such a small crew – he was our P.A. and our translator. We were this motley troupe going around the bush together. His story was really discovered along the way, when he finally revealed what was going on – that he wanted to become a leader, a biologist.
We didn’t know when we started filming that E.O. Wilson was going to show up at the park. When that happened, everything changed. We did feel like we were finding it along the way, which can be an unsettling feeling. You can see in the film how their interaction took off.
Q: “The Guide” addresses the issue that conservation efforts in very poor countries have a whole other set of challenges. What was your experience with the situation at Gorongosa?
It was eye-opening. You know, the life expectancy in Mozambique is less than 40 years old. The idea of investing in the future is different for them. They have immediate needs. So that’s why somebody like Tonga is so necessary. You need someone that understands the community and the science and the big picture.
Q: Among the other films in this weekend’s retrospective is “Last Call at the Oasis,” your very scary film about the world water crisis. What were your conclusions after completing that project?
Well, I will admit to having Googled moving to Canada during the making of that film. Yeah, it’s scary. Growing up in California, I was always aware of water shortages. But the biggest concern is the short amount of time in which action can be taken. It’s not something that’s going to maybe happen in 200-300 years. The Central Valley Aquifer, which grows a fifth of our produce, is potentially going to be tapped out in 60 years. When we got to that fact, I was up at night.
You don’t just want to make a horror movie. You want to interpret things in a helpful way and talk about water stewardship and the way forward. But his stuff is pretty scary, so you need to avoid that kind of jaunty hope in the ending, too. It’s a tricky thing to do, tonally.
Q: You’ve been to Full Frame a few times. What do you like about the festival in particular?
You know, I think Full Frame really gets the documentary community in a way that is quite different. Like the awards barbecue at the end. That kind of tone is really just right; it’s about the camaraderie of the documentary community. I’ve always enjoyed coming.
The other thing is that filmmakers come to see other films, unlike other fests where it feels like a really high pressure market situation, where you feel like you have to be pushing your own film all the time. Full Frame is about the appreciation of the genre. It’s the kind of festival you go to to get recharged. It’s great.